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Institutionalising Research Ethics – Recommendations of the German Data Forum

The German Data Forum (Rat für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsdaten, RatSWD) publishes recommendations on the principles of research ethics and review procedures in the social and economic sciences. It recommends embedding local and supraregional ethics commissions into a harmonised comprehensive concept to foster ethical reflexivity in research. This will also require better integration of research ethics into methods training, academic advisory and teaching.

The empirical social and economic sciences investigate the life cycles, resources and behaviour of individuals and societies, which penetrates the privacy of many people by default. This research process requires an ethical framework that reflects on and strives to avoid possible harm to research subjects.

International research sponsors have reacted to this need by increasingly making ethics reviews mandatory for receiving sponsorship. Some internationally renowned science journals now require a “clearance certificate” of ethical approval before publishing the results of empirical research in the social and economic sciences. On the one hand, this frees research sponsors and journals from the responsibility to discern ethical from unethical research. On the other hand, it burdens researchers with finding a responsible and competent agency for ethical review.

Increasingly, researchers in the social and economic sciences are calling for a consolidated infrastructure that ensures ethical clearance. The German Data Forum’s recommendations are a first step towards a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary understanding of the principles of research ethics and review procedures. Lastly, the goal is to develop structures that facilitate the emergence of a ethics-sensitive research approach through teaching, which may solve ethical problems before they come up.

The German Data Forum recommends:

  • the promotion of ethical reflexivity among researchers, including scientific committees and project advisory boards. Fostering this skillss will require better integrating research ethics into methods training, academic advisory and teaching;
  • the establishment of local ethics commissions at social science and economic research institutions;
  • the establishment of supraregional ethics commissions to support and complement the activities of local ethics commissions in unusual and difficult cases;
  • the establishment of a permanent forum for debate on research ethics to discuss and develop solutions.

The recommendations of the German Data Forum were the result of an intense and comprehensive consultation process, which included academic organisations and other national and international experts. This broad process ensured that the methodological diversity in the social and economic sciences as well as international developments were taken into account.

The report titled “Principles and Review Procedures of Research Ethics in the Social and Economic Sciences” is currently only availble in German. The report’s executive summary, including the full recommendations, is available in English. The full report in German is available in print via the German Data Forum’s office and online via its website: